Review by C.J. Bunce
What you want to see in a giant ensemble movie is probably different than what you’d expect to see in any other movie. Above all, you’re probably after sheer entertainment—whatever that means to you—and you’d likely judge the movie using a different standard than what you’d expect to see in the next Academy Award nominee for Best Picture. These ensemble movies are plentiful enough today that they deserve their own sub-genre in the “Action” tab on streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime (what used to be the “Action” aisle in Blockbuster or Movies To Go).
We’re talking about those movies that crammed in every star that could be found, showcases where studios would show off their current talent, but always big in scope and always a box office draw. A comedy like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!, disaster movies like Airport ’76, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno, epic Western films like The Magnificent Seven and How the West Was Won, and biblical efforts like The Greatest Story Ever Told. Each offered some of the best stars of the day, sometimes full of current stars, sometimes full of has-been stars.
The Avengers franchise seems to have turned around the ensemble film with its many lead actors in leading roles, or at least reinvented the sub-genre, but they still don’t have the sheer volume as past ensemble cast films. The Avengers suffers like many past efforts—with so many actors, how can you please every movie watcher with so little time to devote to each actor? Ultimately it’s all about finding a good balance. None of these films ever get a nod for filmmaking perfection, and many would hardly even rate a 5 on a 10 star scale, but that doesn’t mean they don’t often result in good, old fashioned entertainment. Which brings us to The Expendables 3.
Remember the joke about Rambo, The Terminator, The Transporter, Zorro, Jack Ryan, and Mad Max walking into a bar? Probably not. It would probably not be that funny. But it would be fun to see. It’s that visual that is enough to make The Expendables 3 work.
Replacing the role that would have been played by Bruce Willis’s character in the earlier Expendables movies, Harrison Ford shows up in The Expendables 3 with equal parts classy Jack Ryan and rogue ace pilot Han Solo. Except for his name—call sign Drummer—you could watch The Expendables 3 simply as a sequel to Patriot Games or Clear and Present Danger. Ford’s CIA agent who at once dons a suit but is also ready to get down and dirty, just like Jack Ryan, is enough of a reason to go along for the ride. But there’s more.
Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as Trench, more and more he has filled in roles post-Governator where you once might have seen an older John Wayne or Charlton Heston. Every scene and interaction with Arnold is pure fun, whether it’s between Sylvester Stallone’s Barney Ross and Arnold or between Harrison Ford’s Drummer and Arnold. Who hasn’t wanted to see these guys act together in films, even for a handful of brief scenes? The demand of a big actor salary is of course the barrier to these kinds of efforts, and it’s a credit to Stallone, whose creative efforts and script make these movies happen, that we can see these guys play together, for good or bad. Recall Stallone is no writing slouch—he won the Oscar for his screenplay to Rocky, and he knows how to make an ensemble story. Remember how fun it was to see these guys get together to form Planet Hollywood back in the 1990s? It’s that nostalgia that you’ll get ample doses of with this movie.
Stallone & Co. battle that essential problem mentioned above—they give everyone screen-time, even when there are admittedly too many actors in the movie. The always tough and gritty Jason Statham plays Lee Christmas, Stallone’s old pal and chief supporter, and they convey some real chemistry. The why-doesn’t-he-make-more-movies Wesley Snipes, Kelsey Grammer, Mel Gibson, and even Dolph Lundgren each phone in some of their best work on this film. Seriously. Does a seemingly easy role make actors perform better? There’s many others in the movie, too, many you’ll know, others you won’t, including B-movie action players from the earlier Expendables movies.
The Expendables 3 suffers by pulling in a new cast of younger wanna-bes, which at least serves the plotline, but takes away from some of those actors we only want to see more of. For all the actors we can’t get enough of, the movie also drags a bit, is a tad too long, and could stand to drop some of the minor plot threads. Mel Gibson plays an off-the-shelf, “black hat” bad guy. Yet Stallone & Co. try to make his character something more layered. Normally that would be a good thing. Here the viewer doesn’t really care. Just forward us quickly to the fight scene at the end where we get to see Gibson pay the piper.
The biggest and most welcome surprise is Antonio Banderas as Galgo. A quarter of the story is a play on Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven, as Stallone’s Barney recruits a bunch of new tough guys (and one tough gal) to replace the near-retirement original Expendables crew on a revenge mission. Banderas’s Galgo is that last recruit—the chatty, exuberant, and excitable but worthy guy no one wants on the team—taking on the part that Horst Buchholz played as Chico from The Magnificent Seven or Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. But Galgo is a refreshing, vibrant, and funny addition to the team.
Sure—the movie is full of one-liners and more bullets and explosions then anything you’ve seen since Rambo or Terminator 2. But if you like the idea of the movie, then you’re likely to find the result to be a bundle of fun.
The Expendables 3 is now streaming on EPIX and other streaming providers, as well as on Blu-ray available at Amazon.com here.